' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

The stars, the concept, even the poster, all of it would seem readymade to mark Clarence Brown’s “Wife vs. Secretary” as a hijinks-laden love triangle or even an of-the-era advisory of a lasivicious working woman demonstrating that her place is really the hearth and home. And yet.....that "Vs." of the title is so terribly misleading. It's like the film's marketers wanted audiences to assume it was "Bride Wars" 73 years before "Bride Wars" was released. They wanted it to sound like a rom-com styled OK Corral Shootout. "Only ONE woman can wind up in Gable's arms. Who's it gonna be?!" They wanted to emit the air that it was another in an eternal supply of Hollywood confections that employ their brightest and best females as a means to be reductive to women, to put forth the antiquated idea that where there are two women there is bound to be claws and catfights.

Ah, but "Wife vs. Secretary", bless its forward-thinking soul, knows all this and subverts it, skillfully and successfully. Why it even goes one further and how asks how we look at others and what we see when we look at them and how quick we are to not only judge but to be influenced by scattershot opinions of the masses.


As the film opens, all seems tranquil with the principal trio. Van (Clark Gable) and Linda (Myrna Loy) are happily married and Van's magazine publishing company is running smoothly due in large part to the eternal efforts of his secretary, the unfortunately named Whitey (Jean Harlow). Really, truly, utterly, it's all hunky dory. But then "Wife vs. Secretary" conforms to the wicked stepmother stereotype as Van's mom (May Robson) points out to Linda, as if she hadn't noticed before, the natural effervescent attractiveness of her spouse's secretary. And later at a company party, so many wives of so many employees of Van tell Linda the same damn thing. They basically make Whitey out to be a strumpet because she's blonde and voluptuous and looks like Jean Harlow.

For the remainder of the film, Linda's viewpoint of Whitey is tainted by these baseless accusations. What she sees suggests nothing is amiss, but what she sees seems less than paramount to what she's been told, and so what she's been told becomes what she sees, not that a human being would ever fall prey to such an epistemological crisis. Ha! Take Whitey's boyfriend, this knucklehead named Dave (Jimmy Stewart). He doesn't think it's "natural" for a woman to be working. Natural! "Not made or caused by humankind." Like, on the ninth day God said, "The womenfolk don't work." And when Dave proposes to Whitey, partially out of love but partially out of "Because once you're wearing my ring I'll decree that you don't work no more", she rejects him.

Everything comes to a front at a conference in Havana that Van and Whitey attend as boss & secretary. Linda calls her husband's room only to have, sure enough, Whitey answer. Nothing was happening, but the instant Linda hears that nasally tart voice on the other end of the line every one of her misplaced suspicions comes true. And it's in the moments that follow when "Wife vs. Secretary" soars, putting Van and Whitey into the position where fulfilling carnal desire would be the obvious thing.


In my ongoing effort to watch every Harlow film, I dare say never has Harlean Carpenter been better. She sits on the end of Gable's bed, where his character sits drunkenly, with an impassive expression that still conveys a rolodex of emotion. It's as if every opinion everyone has ever formed of her, whether true or untrue, has been made to bear, dropped on her at once, and the toll the age-old weapon of innuendo can take is palpable. Yet in spite of the slander, she maintains her virtue, and perhaps "Wife vs. Secretary" would have done best to end right there even if various entanglements would have gone unresolved. Instead a little phony baloney is tossed on top, including Whitey getting back together with that tweedle-dum Dave and her awesome integrity is idiotically compromised. The film was smart enough to subvert sexual politics of the day, yet stupid enough to still fall prey to them.

1 comment:

joel65913 said...

Terrific take on the film. This was one of the strongest pictures in Jean and MGM's joint effort to move her from the brassiest of blondes, which she was the ultimate at but which has a limited shelf life, to a more dignified presence in tune with the times that would enable her to sustain her career longer. Of course none of them could know that longer was to be only a year after this. What surprises me is that Myrna Loy plays such a gullible nitwit, her innate intelligence works against her being believable. The ending could have been stronger but this is still a solid film.

This is one of Harlow's better performances but I've always felt her best work was a tie between Red Dust and Libeled Lady.